Cream Separators Paid: Antique Dairy Collectibles Example of Innovation on the Farm
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Gustav de Laval of Sweden patented a centrifugal separator in England in 1878. His was not the first centrifugal separator, but it was the first to allow continuous operation: That is, cream could be removed without interrupting separator operation, maximizing output.
A paycheck every week
Invention of the modern separator was a hugely important development on the farm. Dairies suddenly had a way to process enormous amounts of milk. Just as important, any farm with a dairy cow had immediate access to a new revenue stream.
“Farmers could separate the cream, put it in cans and sell it once or twice a week,” Kent says, “and they’d feed the skim milk to their livestock. Even if you just had one cow, you’d have a separator. That’s why there were so many of them: Everybody had one.” Ads for the Wm. Galloway Co., a Waterloo, Iowa, manufacturer of separators, noted that, “the dairy is the only department on the farm which brings in a paycheck every week of the year.” (Read more about the William Galloway Co. in Sam Moore’s column “Mail Order Magnate” from the March 2009 issue of Farm Collector.)
Early models were hand-cranked. Later, some were steam powered, but most separators were powered by stationary gas engines (often on a line shaft). As rural electrification swept the country in the 1930s, electric separators became common (many separators were equipped with a countershaft, allowing the machine to be operated by either gas or electric engine). By the 1940s, with widespread refrigeration and improved transportation, separator sales slid in a steep decline.
Manufacturers were quick to enter the market in the years following de Laval’s invention. The first American-made separator was produced by the Sharples Separator Co. in the early 1880s. “There were more than 200 separator manufacturers from the late 19th century on,” Kent notes, “but a lot of them were very short-lived.” The industry delivered a dizzying number of styles and models to a seemingly limitless market. By 1915, writes C.H. Wendel in Encyclopedia of American Farm Implements and Antiques, “there were more than 2 million cream separators in daily use, with continuing sales of more than 200,000 per year.”
“DeLaval was probably the biggest manufacturer,” Kent says, “but International probably sold as many, owing to the size of the company’s dealer organization.” DeLaval separators were considered the best available and were priced accordingly. Other leading manufacturers in the highly competitive industry included Sears, Roebuck & Co., Montgomery Ward and Sharples.